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System of a Down

Last week’s classic album is System of a Down’s eponymous début album.

Some Historical Context

System of a Down completely passed me by. I had never heard of them until at some point in the last few years I read an article on the Guardian web site called “100 essential albums from the last ten years” or something like that. I used that article as the impetus to buy half a dozen or so albums that I’d never heard of. One of those album’s was System of a Down’s second album, Toxicity. I listened to it, decided that it really wasn’t for me and put it to one side.

Then, a few weeks ago, I got involved in a discussion about choosing a single iconic album to represent each of the last twenty-five years. Some of the people involved in the discussion were appalled that I hadn’t considered SOAD’s first two albums for 1998 or 2001. In case I was missing out on something good, I listened to the first album and decided that it really wasn’t any better than the second one. SOAD were really not a band who I enjoyed.

So imagine my excitement when the band’s first album was pulled out of the hat and became last week’s classic album of the week. This will be the second time I’ve heard this album. Yes, I have preconceptions, but I’ll try to be fair.

The rest of this blog post will be written as I listen to the album.

The Songs

1. Suite-Pee

It’s difficult to review this without sounding like a cliché – “this isn’t music”, “I can’t make out the words”, “he’s just shouting”. If I want to listen to stuff like this then I know where to find Napalm Death.

2. Know

Oh. At least this one has a bit of tune. Not a very good one, but a tune nonetheless. Are we sure it’s not the chap from Napalm Death on lead vocals?

3. Sugar

I’m hating this. But we persevere. There’s a false ending just before the two minute mark, but the songs all sound so similar that it could just be the break between two shorter songs.

4. Suggestions

This started ok. Nice little bit of guitar. But within seconds it turned into the usual dirge. Oh, and a bit where they put on comedy voices like Monty Python’s pepperpot women.

5. Spiders

They’re trying to lull me into a false sense of security here. This starts off sounding almost musical. I bet it won’t last. [time passes] Ok, I was wrong. It stayed vaguely musical for the whole three and half minutes. Not good, just vaguely musical.

6. DDevil

Back to their usual sound. It’s terrible. Mercifully short though.

7. Soil

More of the same. I’m losing the will to live.

8. War?

How much more of this is there? There’s nothing constructive to say about this at all. It’s just horrible.

9. Mind

Ok. Here’s another one that sounds different. And not entirely horrible. Then at 1:45 it goes silent and comes back sounding rubbish again. And at about 3:00 we’re back in their usual style. Then it spends three minutes wandering around various styles – none of them very good.

10. Peephole

Between the usual dross there’s an interesting little guitar riff trying to get out here. Soon gets buried though.

11. CUBErt

Another one that sounds like it might be interesting – for about ten seconds before the usual nonsense sweeps in. Almost over now. I need a drink.

12. Darts

I have nothing more to add.

13. P.L.U.C.K.

Last song. I’m going to get though this. Lucky the album is only 40 minutes long.

In Summary

I hope I never have to listen another note by this band. It is horrible. I know this is just my opinion and a lot of people don’t share it. There’s a lot of evidence that many people see something in this noise that I just can’t.

I guess this is how Daily Mail readers felt when they heard the Sex Pistols for the first time.

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Machine Head

This week’s (actually two weeks ago’s – I’m a bit behind here) classic album is Deep Purple’s Machine Head.

Some Historical Context

I’ve never heard this album before. Oh, I know Deep Purple, of course. When I was a teenager, we all had, at least, a copy of 24 Carat Purple. Later on I also bought In Concert and Come Taste the Band (neither of which are particularly good).

But I’ve never listened to Machine Head all the way through. So there will be songs I know well and songs that I’ve never heard before. Also, it’s been about thirty years since I played a Deep Purple album, so this will be interesting.

The rest of this blog post will be written as I listen to the album.

The Songs

1. Highway Star

We start with one that I know, but not particularly well. That’s probably because it was on Made In Japan – a live album that many of friends had. It would be a pretty standard fast blues if it wasn’t for Jon Lord’s organ solo. I’ve never been that impressed by fast guitar solos, but I like a drop of Hammond organ.

2. Maybe I’m a Leo

A much slower song, and one that I don’t know at all. Seems to be relying a bit too much on Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar skills. Which makes it all a bit dull.

3. Pictures of Home

Another one I don’t remember ever hearing before. And I’m starting to remember why I stopped listening to Deep Purple thirty years ago. I’m sure it’s all very technically accomplished. But it’s just boring. Even the Hammond solo can’t save it.Oh, and a false ending. How interesting.

4. Never Before

And here’s one I know well. Perhaps it’s just the familiarity, but I like this a lot more than the last couple. It sounds like they’ve actually thought about constructing a song rather than just running a few solos together.

5. Smoke on the Water

Side two starts with the band’s best known song. But this isn’t the version that I know best. 24 Carat Purple included a live version from Made In Japan. And that version has a lot more power than this one does. This sounds positively weedy in comparison. Still a great song though. And still one of the first riffs that any guitarist learns.

6. Lazy

I think I know this one, but the beginning sounds unfamiliar. Nope. Halfway through and I still don’t recognise it. It’s all a bit “Jazz Odyssey” for my tastes. Oh, wait. After four and a half minutes the vocals come in and I recognise it. It can’t be this version I’ve heard before. Maybe not even by Deep Purple. Unimpressed.

7. Space Truckin’

And finally, another song that I know vaguely from hearing live albums at friends’ houses. Lyrically, at least, they seem to trying to channel Hawkwind. But even on their worst day Hawkwind are head and shoulders above this.

In Summary

I remember Deep Purple being far more interesting than this. Perhaps my musical tastes were less developed. Or perhaps they have other albums that are better. As I said, I stopped listening to Deep Purple about thirty years ago and I now know that I was right to do so. I’m unlikely to try them again in the near future.

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Nevermind

This week’s classic album is Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Some Historical Context

I know I heard this soon after it first came out. A colleague at work lent me a cassette (remember cassettes?) of it. I remember listening to it for the first time on my Walkman (not really a Sony Walkman – some other brand) and being really impressed by it.

I didn’t buy it at the time. In fact I’m not sure I ever bought it. I think the CD I have may well have been left behind when my stepdaughter moved out of the house.

While I was impressed by Nirvana, I was never a huge fan. The only album I ever bought was the MTV Unplugged one. I never saw them play. I do, however, remember exactly what I was doing when I heard the Kurt Cobain was dead.

The rest of this blog post will be written as I listen to the album.

The Songs

1. Smells Like Teen Spirit

I’ve loved this song since I first heard it. It’s one of the all-time great ways to start an album. I don’t think there’s anything particularly revolutionary here – slow verse followed by a “let it rip” chorus – but it all hangs together really well.

2. In Bloom

This is pretty similar, to be honest. The verse isn’t quite as quiet as on Teen Spirit, but the pattern is the same. And it’s still really good. Why change a successful formula?

3. Come as You Are

This was another single from the album (Teen Spirit was the first). It’s been a while since I’ve listened to this album all the way through and I’d forgotten just how strongly it opens.

4. Breed

Ok, I admit that a lot of the songs on the album sound a bit similar. And this means that in some cases I’m not entirely able to match the song with the title. Until it started I had no idea what this songs was going to sound like. But now I recognise it. And like it a lot.

5. Lithium

Another on built one the same formula as most of the album. It’s funny how some albums can sound samey and you start getting bored by the end of side one, whereas others (like this one) can be just as samey but each song still sounds fresh. I suppose it comes down to whether or not you enjoy the formula.

6. Polly

And here, finally, is a song that goes beyond the standard Nirvana formula. It’s a sweet-sounding acoustic. It’s only when you listen to the lyrics that you realise it’s about a rape.

7. Territorial Pissings

This also goes against the slow verse/fast chorus template of most of the album. But it moves in the opposite direction to Polly. Everything is fast in this song. I think it’s probably one of the least memorable songs on the album.

8. Drain You

We’re a couple of songs into side two of the album here. And, to tell the truth, the saminess is starting to show a bit.

9. Lounge Act

More of the same. Nothing wrong with it, but we’ve heard it all before.

10. Stay Away

This one stands out a bit. The slow verse bit isn’t as slow as some of them.

11. On a Plain

Getting toward the end of the album, so it’s time to start bringing out some big tunes. I don’t often listen to albums all the way through any more and listening to these classic albums has reminded me just how carefully songs are ordered on an album. I was convinced this was called “On a Plane”. I was wrong.

12. Something in the Way

The last track on the album (the next one is a hidden track and doesn’t appear on all pressings) is something a bit different – it’s all slow, like an extended verse from the rest of the album. This and Polly show that the band were far more versatile than their critics give them credit for.

13. Endless Nameless

After a couple of minutes silence we get this. It’s pretty much just noise. I don’t think I can remember a hidden track that actually improves the album it’s on. This is no exception. And it goes on for far too long.

In Summary

This is still a really good album (well, with the exception of the hidden track) but more than anything it’s a reminder of just how much potential Nirvana had.

It’s not the best classic album we’ve had so far and, to be honest, it gets a bit too samey in the middle of side two, But I don’t listen to this album enough and I’m glad I was pushed into it.

Rating

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Led Zeppelin 4

Yes, I know that’s not what it’s really called. But it was easier than looking for all the individual runes.

Some Historical Context

Another album that I feel like I’ve known forever. Although, I know I haven’t known it as long as something like A Night at the Opera. This was something that definitely knew well in the late 70s. I remember it being a big deal when Led Zeppelin played Knebworth in 1979. I wasn’t there, but a good friend was (and then didn’t shut up about how great it was for over twenty years).

I had this album on vinyl. I guess I bought it in about 1980 (nine years after it was released). It had a gatefold sleeve and an inner sleeve with the lyrics of Stairway to Heaven on it. I miss the kind of packaging you used to get with vinyl albums.

Anyway, it’s an album that I know and love. I don’t listen to it too frequently these days, but I’m looking forward to this.

The rest of this blog post will be written as I listen to the album.

The Songs

1. Black Dog

And we’re straight in with some no frills heavy metal. Robert Plant shrieks the lyrics unaccompanied and the band respond in kind. I was about 16 when I first heard this and it made a huge impression. I still want to start banging my head whenever I hear it.

2. Rock and Roll

Another song that is instantly recognisable to anyone with any interest in British rock. When they recorded the song it had actually been about fifteen years “since the rock ‘n’ roll”. Now it’s been over fifty. That’s the kind of thing it would say about this song if they played it on Top of the Pops 2. But, of course, Led Zeppelin were never on Top of the Pops.

3. The Battle of Evermore

This is probably my favourite song on the album. It’s completely different to the first two tracks and has the sublimely wonderful Sandy Denny joining Plant on vocals. Oh, and the lyrics mention stuff from the Lord of the Rings – which would have had sixteen-year-old me squealing with delight.

4. Stairway to Heaven

Yeah. It’s that one. The song that is banned from being played in every guitar shop in the world. You know how it goes. It’s all slow and then it gets a lot faster. You probably love it – I know I do. I have nothing further to add.

5. Misty Mountain Hop

Have to say that some of side two (and this is the start of side two for those of your who don’t remember life before CDs) suffers a bit in comparison to the wall-to-wall classics on side one. This is great, but it’s definitely one of the weaker tracks on the album.

6. Four Sticks

Another non-classic that suffers from being on this album. But, once again, there’s really nothing wrong with it at all. If I’m asked to name the tracks on the album (not, I admit a task I’m often set) then this would be the one I’d forget about.

7. Going to California

Another slow one. And another one that I really like. Apparently it’s about Joni Mitchell.

8. When the Levee Breaks

And a really  strong track to end. It’s a heavily reworked version of an old blues number. Love the tightness of the rhythm section.

In Summary

This album is over forty years old, but it still holds up well today. I probably haven’t played it all the way through for about six months and I’ve really enjoyed listening to it again today. I should get into the habit of playing it more often.

Rating

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Lemonjelly.ky

This is unusual – a classic album that I’ve never heard of. I’ve never even heard of the artist. I’m looking forward to this.

Some Historical Context

I’ve got absolutely nothing to go here.

The rest of this blog post will be written as I listen to the album.

The Songs

1. In the Bath

As it starts off, I’m immediately reminded of The Orb. It has the same musical form with repeated spoken snippets over the top. Oh, and a minute and a half in it gets going a bit more. Nice, but never really goes anywhere.

2. Nervous Tension

As it starts, this seems very much more of the same. There’s a nice bass riff at about 6:25 – very beatnik. I think I could do without the narration though.

3. A Tune for Jack

Twenty seconds of talking before this one really starts. I think I’ve pretty much got the gist of what this album does now.

4. His Majesty King Raam

Getting a little bored now. Oh. I thought it was finishing, but there’s still over two minutes to go. Does everything need to be so long?

5. The Staunton Lick

This starts with a guitar lesson – which is a bit weird. They’ve stopped reminding me of The Orb, now I think they’re a second-rate Beta Band. Now that’s not a terrible thing to be as I really like The Beta Band. But I have plenty of Beta Band music to listen to and I’m not sure why I’d ever choose this album over, say, The Three EPs.

6. Homage to Patagonia

This is even more Beta Band than the last one. Oh, and it has a false ending – how witty. Is that a sitar I can hear?

7. Kneel Before Your God

I think they’re starting to reel me in. There’s nothing to differentiate this from the previous tracks, but I’m quite enjoying it.

8. Page One

Nothing new or different here. But, you know, I’m really starting to quite like it.

9. Come

I still think it’s rather Beta Band-y, but I’m now questioning whether it was fair to describe them as “second-rate”.

In Summary

Well, wasn’t that an interesting experience. I just over an hour I’ve gone from “meh” to “hmm” to then to “ooh”.

I’m wondering whether the album actually did get better as I went through it, or whether I just got more used to what they were doing.

I’m clearly going to have to listen to this again.

Rating

(but there's definitely scope for that to increase on further listenings)

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The Specials

For various boring reasons, this review is a week late.

Some Historical Context

A few weeks ago I told you all how much I disliked reggae. But ska is different to reggae. Ska isn’t one of my favourite musical styles but there can’t be many people who were listening to popular music in the late 1970s who don’t smile and tap their feet when they hear one of the early 2 Tone records.

So there is going to be a lot on this album that I already know and like. But for some reason I always saw the 2 Tone artists as singles artists and never bought a single 2 Tone album. So there will also be a lot of stuff that I’ve never heard.

Note: I appear to have acquired a US version of the album. It includes the track “Gangsters” which was missing from the original UK release.

The rest of this blog post will be written as I listen to the album.

The Songs

1. A Message to You, Rudy

We start with something that I know well. This was the single that introduced the album – and it got a lot of airtime on Radio One. This is what I think of as pretty pure ska. It’s a cover version of an old Jamaican song, I think.

2. Do the Dog

This is one I don’t remember hearing before. It’s less ska and has a slightly harder, post-punk edge. Two songs in and I’m already strting to think that this might be be a “nice in small doses” album.

3. It’s Up to You

Another one that I don’t recognise. And the album is getting pretty samey. I suspect that if I took the time to listen to it a few times then it has the potential to grow on me. But I’m currently thinking that my collection really only needs a compilation of the band’s singles.

4. Nite Klub

I thought I knew this one. I certainly recognised the title. But it’s not ringing any bells. Well, only insofar as it sounds a lot like the last few tracks.

5. Doesn’t Make It Alright

A change of pace. This is a lot slower than the last few. Initially that sounded like a good idea, but having got through two verses and choruses I’m just finding it a bit dull and repetitive.

6. Concrete Jungle

This starts with a football chant. Which isn’t exactly a great start. It seems to be about how grim it is living in the Midlands. I’m not sure I could argue with that. This is faster again, but still quite dull and repetitive.

7. Too Hot

This is more like “classic” reggae than anything else we’ve heard so far. And we all know what I think of reggae.

8. Monkey Man

Another song that got a lot of play back in 1979, and therefore something that I know well. And its familiarity amongst so many unknown songs is probably what makes my enjoy it so much even though it’s not musically very different from the rest of the album. If I remember correctly, this is another cover version.

9. (Dawning of A) New Era

Same old same old.

10. Blank Expression

And we move from a dull fast song to a dull slow song.

11. Stupid Marriage

I’m really surprised how little I’m enjoying this album.

12. Too Much Too Young

This is more like it. This was another single – although that was live and this is the original studio version. I remember the lyrics being really shocking in 1979. How times change. Oh, and I’ve just realised that this is much longer than the version I know well. And I have to say that much of the power of the version I know is in its brevity.

13. Gangsters

This was the band’s first single, but it’s not included on the original UK version of the album. It still sounds as fresh and different as it did when I first heard it in 1979 – which is a bit strange as actually it’s pretty similar to the rest of the album which I haven’t been enjoying much at all.

14. Little Bitch

This one just washed over me without me noticing anything about it.

15. You’re Wondering Now

This one sounded alright.

In Summary

I was surprised how little I enjoyed that. There were three or four sounds that I knew and still enjoyed, but everything else was just dull. Can’t see myself listening to this again very soon.

Rating

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The Velvet Underground and Nico

This week’s classic album is another one that I recommended. It’s The Velvet Underground‘s debut album from 1967.

Some Historical Context

It feels like I’ve always loved The Velvet Underground but that can’t possibly be true. I think I actually discovered them about thirty years ago. I know that I saw Nico in concert in about 1982. And in about 1983/4 I had a flatmate who had everything they had ever recorded. The first definite memory I have of hearing this album was someone putting it on as I was waking up on a Sunday morning following a rather heavy house party. I think that was also around 1982/3.

But ever since I first heard them they have been one of my favourite bands. I was lucky enough to see them play twice when they briefly reformed in 1993 – one great gig at the Town and Country Club in Kentish Town and another gig at that year’s Glastonbury Festival.

The album is one that I know inside out and listen to a lot. It probably fades into the background most of the time. It’ll be interesting to really listen to it again.

The rest of this blog post will be written as I listen to the album.

The Songs

1. Sunday Morning

This is about as close as you can get to a perfect song to open an album. Especially if, as I am right now, you’re listening to it on a sunny Sunday morning. Its fabulous lush sound draws you slowly into the album and leaves you longing to hear more.

2. I’m Waiting for the Man

After the complex production on Sunday Morning, this all comes as a bit of a shock. From a laid back song about the joys of summer we’re plunged into a discordant rock song about buying drugs in New York. This is our first real indication of what the VU are really about. Listen to that guitar. At times it sounds like Reed is just hitting random notes. But it’s great.

3. Femme Fatale

And we’re back with the laid back stuff. But while it sounds pretty, the lyrics tell a different story. This is the first song sung by Nico and she tells us all about a woman that you really don’t want to have anything to do with. It’s actually about Edie Sedgwick. It’s a lovely song.

4. Venus in Furs

It there’s one thing that this album is, it’s unpredictable. Just as you think you might have an idea where it is going the band throw a curve-ball like this at you. When this was first released in 1967 this was a sound that no-one had heard before. John Cale plays the viola on this song. Probably the most discordant viola ever heard on a rock record. But it’s a perfect sound for the lyrics. The song is about sadomasochism. Have you noticed that so far every track on the album has been an absolute classic?

5. Run Run Run

If there’s a filler song on the album then this is it. After a run of four classic songs, we come to one that is merely adequate. We’re back to the basic instrumentation of Waiting for the Man – the subject matter is similar too, but the song isn’t quite as interesting.

6. All Tomorrow’s Parties

We finish side one with one of the album’s high-points. Some of the strangest instrumentation we’ve heard so far and Nico singing (chanting, almost) about some very peculiar people. Some people may know this better from the cover version by Japan. This version is much better.

7. Heroin

So we turn the album over (yes, I know no-one does that any more – indulge me) and suddenly things get much weirder. Lou Reed thinks that the best way to start side two is to spend seven minutes trying to describe what a heroin rush is like through the medium of music. Now, I’m certainly no expert, but I think he pretty much succeeds. If nothing else, it convinced me that I never want to try it!

8. There She Goes Again

Realising, no doubt, that we all need a bit of rest after Heroin, this is a far more traditional song. There is still the trademark VU instrumentation, but this is the kind of thing I can imagine being in the charts in the late 60s (of course neither of the actual singles from the album – Sunday Morning and a edited version of All Tomorrow’s Parties – never went anywhere near the charts).

9. I’ll Be Your Mirror

And we’re back in Femme Fatale territory as Nico provides a pretty vocal to this short and sweet love song. But don’t be fooled, they’re softening us up for the kill.

10. The Black Angel’s Death Song

This is the most discordant song on the album. They aren’t even pretending to have a plan. And yet somehow it still works.

11. European Son

If I’m honest, I don’t think that the album ends as strongly as it could. Side one is overloaded with complete classics and whilst there are certainly no stinkers on side two it sort of tails off towards the end. There’s nothing at all wrong with this song. On pretty much any other album it would be a stand-out track. But on this album it’s just ok.

In Summary

I love this album. I don’t listen to it enough and I’m glad I had this push to listen to it again. The Velvet Underground are one of those touchstone bands – if you’re not a fan of the VU then there’s a strong chance that we won’t be good friends.

They’re certainly an influential band. If your taste in music is anything like mine then many of your favourite acts will cite the VU as a big influence. I can’t put it better than Brian Eno who once said “the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

Rating

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The Harder They Come

This week’s “classic album” is Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come – which is actually the soundtrack of a film and therefore contains some songs that aren’t by Jimmy Cliff.

Some Historical Context

This will be short. I’ve never heard this album before.

Oh, I know who Jimmy Cliff is and I recognise a few of his songs. He was a surprise guest at Paul Simon’s recent gig in Hyde Park and I enjoyed the three or four songs that he played there.

In a wider context, reggae is really not one of my favourite musical styles.

The rest of this blog post will be written as I listen to the album.

The Songs

1. You Can Get It If You Really Want

Happy that it starts with a song that I know well. Pretty sure I remember this from the early 70s. Sounds like a song that was part of my childhood. It’s a happy, bouncy song and it soon has me smiling. To me, it sounds more pop than reggae.

2. Draw Your Brakes (performed by Scotty)

This sounds more like traditional reggae to me. And therefore a good deal less enjoyable. This is what always happen when I listen to reggae. A song starts off sounding good, but I get bored by the time we get halfway through it. Never heard of Scotty. No interest in finding out more about him.

3. Rivers of Babylon (performed by The Melodians)

Another song that, of course, I know well – although not in this version. It’s not bad, an improvement on the previous song, but I’d rather be listening to the Boney M version. In fact, the best version I own is by Sweet Honey in the Rock. Quite like Sinead O’Connor’s version too. Wikipedia tells me this is the original. And once again I’m bored rigid when there’s still a minute to go.

4. Many Rivers to Cross

Another song I know well. And really like. The pattern emerging here is that I like the Jimmy Cliff songs best – largely, I suppose, because they are all so un-reggae. This one is more gospel than reggae.

5. Sweet and Dandy (performed by The Maytals)

Presumably this is the Maytals of “Toots and the …” fame. I know they are a famous reggae act, but I don’t think I’ve every heard anything by them. And if this is anything to go by, I won’t be searching out any more of their material.

6. The Harder They Come

I thought I knew this one well too. But it turns out that I only really recognise the chorus. The most reggae Jimmy Cliff song so far and currently I’m enjoying it. Still two minutes to go though.

7. Johnny Too Bad (performed by The Slickers)

Less than a minute into this and I’m already looking to see how much longer it’s going on for. Repetitive and dull. Really didn’t enjoy that.

8. 007 (Shanty Town) (performed by Desmond Dekker)

Oh, I know this one too. But, once again, the excitement of recognition wears off quickly and we’re bored.

9. Pressure Drop (performed by The Maytals)

Damn. More Maytals. Very much like the last one. And just about as enjoyable (i.e. not at all).

10. Sitting in Limbo

Looks like this is the only Jimmy Cliff song on the album that didn’t already know. Again, it’s more pop than reggae. And, again, it’s pretty good. Oh wait. All gets a bit repetitive towards the end.

11. You Can Get It If You Really Want

Didn’t we already have this one? That’s a bit lazy.

12. The Harder They Come

Oh, and we finish with Jimmy Cliff’s most reggae-ish song on the album. And for once a reggae song kept my interest through to the end. That’s probably because I already knew the song well.

In Summary

Meh.

I wondered if my eyes would suddenly be opened to the glories of reggae. That didn’t happen at all. I seem to quite like Jimmy Cliff though, so I might try a couple more of his albums. The more traditional reggae songs on the album were just a waste of space though.

Rating

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Highway 61 Revisited

Week two in the “listening to classic albums” music club. This week it’s Bob Dylan‘s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited.

Some Historical Context

This album was released just before my third birthday so, unlike last week’s album, I have no memory of the album coming out. In fact, I can’t really remember when I first became aware of Bob Dylan. I had cassettes of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits volumes one and two when I was growing up. And I remember reading about his massive Blackbushe gig in 1978. But I certainly wasn’t a huge Dylan fan at that time. I owned no Dylan at all on vinyl. It was only once I started buying CDs that I started to buy Dylan. Even now, I don’t keep up with his newer work. I have a dozen or so Dylan CDs, but they’re all from the sixties and seventies (or recordings from that period that were released later).

However, I do think that in the sixties Dylan was a hugely influential artist and I listen to his music a lot. Highway 61 Revisited was one of my suggestions for the music club. It was a toss-up between that or Blonde on Blonde.

This album comes right as Dylan was moving from acoustic to electric music. His previous album had a side of each. This album is all electric except for the final song.

The rest of this blog post will be written as I listen to the album.

The Songs

1. Like a Rolling Stone

An easy way to get into the album. Something that everyone will recognise. This must be one of the best-known popular songs of all time. And rightly so, it’s fabulous. I particularly love Dylan’s biting lyrics and Al Kooper’s swooping Hammond organ. One of the best starts to an album ever.

2. Tombstone Blues

Rather more basic instrumentation on this one. Which means that there’s far more emphasis on Dylan’s lyrics. It’s a good song, but maybe not quite strong enough to follow “Like a Rolling Stone”. Is anything?

3. It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

You know, there are so many really strong songs on this album that there are actually a few that I’ve never really listened to carefully. This is one of those. It’s typical of the kind of thing that Dylan did on his early albums – he takes a traditional American musical form (in this case a blues song about trains) and subtly mutates it to his own ends. Not one of the best songs on the album, but perfectly enjoyable mid-side fodder.

4. From a Buick 6

Another pretty standard blues form pushed almost beyond recognition by Dylan and the band (not The Band – they came very soon afterwards). And there’s that glorious Hammond again. Love it.

5. Ballad of a Thin Man

Another of the album’s classics to close side one. Not as well known as “Like a Rolling Stone”, but almost as good. Some of the easiest to understand lyrics on the whole album and it’s the closest thing on the album to a protest song. Dylan is attacking the journalist who were reporting on the folk scene without really understanding what it was about.

6. Queen Jane Approximately

Side two starts very strongly too. But, while this isn’t quite as biting as “Ballad of a Thin Man”, it’s not exactly a positive lyric. Great song though.

7. Highway 61 Revisited

Ah yes, the slightly silly one. Well, the music always makes my smile. It’s a driving song – the clue is in the title. Probably the weakest song on the album, but that’s far from being a criticism on an album as good as this one.

8. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

This is another one that I tend to overlook. But that’s only because it’s rather eclipsed by what comes next. If you listen to it on its own merits then it’s a perfectly fine song.

9. Desolation Row

And this, to me, is what the album has been leading to. Eleven minutes of the finest music ever committed to vinyl. It has a stripped-down sound compared to the rest of the album (this is the single acoustic track) but somehow that gives it greater power. The lyrics make little or no sense – just a series of “stream of conciousness” vignettes – but they are majestic in their nonsense. Fans of the Watchmen will probably recognise the verse that starts “at midnight, all the agents”. I’ve been trying for years to work out why I love this song so much and I can’t put my finger on it. It’s just awesome.

In Summary

I’ve had no surprises over the last 50 or so minutes. I’ve loved this album for years. It’s not my favourite Dylan album (I don’t think I have a favourite Dylan album – they all have things to recommend them) but in “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Desolation Row” this certainly contains two of my favourite Dylan songs.

I haven’t mentioned his voice. I know it grates on people. You just have to move past it. I haven’t noticed it for years but, listening to it now, I can understand how it might bother people who aren’t used to it. It’s an acquired taste, but it’s one well worth taking the effort to acquire.

I predict that it’ll be several weeks before the music club throws up an album as good as this one[1].

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[1] A very dodgy prediction as a) they’re all classics and b) a lot of the albums in the hat were suggested by me.

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music

A Night at the Opera

I’ve joined a music club on Facebook. It’s a bit like a book club but instead of reading a book you listen to an album. This week we’re supposed to listen to Queen’s A Night at the Opera. Here are my thoughts.

Some Historical Context

I had this album soon after it came out in November 1975. I played it constantly. I loved it. This was the album that made me a huge Queen fan. I bought (or taped friends’ copies of) every Queen album from this up to Jazz in 1978. I also went back and bought their first three albums (and pretended that I’d been a big fan all along).

But tastes change. By the end of the 70s I wasn’t buying every Queen album. In 1982 I finally saw them live and really didn’t enjoy myself. By the time Freddie Mercury died I was completely bored by them and have gone out of my way to avoid hearing them ever since.

This will be interesting. An album that I used to know inside out, but haven’t heard for twenty years.

The rest of this blog post will be written as I listen to the album.

The Songs

1. Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to…)

Starting off with a dash of rock. It’s all a bit pretentious. I’m sure my thirteen-year-old self loved it. It’s not terrible, but I could happily go the rest of my life without hearing it again.

2. Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon

Following pretentious with twee. This sounds like something you’ll hear at an end-of-the-pier show. I hate it. Not going well so far.

3. I’m in Love With My Car

As I recall, Roger Taylor used to always get given one song on an album (rather like George Harrison did). I remember that others of them like “Tenement Funster” (from Sheer Heart Attack) and “Drowse” (from A Day at the Races) were pretty good. This is just average. The subject matter doesn’t endear it to me either.

4. You’re My Best Friend

This was the second single from the album (following “Bohemian Rhapsody”). And while it’s not quite as dire as “Lazy on a Sunday Afternoon”, it’s still in a very similar vein. And pretty horrible stuff.

5. 39

There’s a folky, acoustic vibe to this that I quite like. Best thing on the album so far. I read an article about this song recently. I was surprised to read that it was about space travel and relativity. From the title I had always assumed it was about the Second World War.

6. Sweet Lady

Reading this title triggered no memories of what this song sounded like. But now I remember. Another standard rock number with some astounding lyrics (“you call me sweet like I’m some kind of cheese”). Oh yes, and the chorus has some ridiculous time signature changes. I think I had quite sensibly blocked it from my memory.

7. Seaside Rendezvous

Before listening this I was dreading it. And I was quite right to. It’s terrible. Another of those end-of-the-pier songs like “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon”. I assume that they thought it made them sound eclectic or something like that. And with that we’re at the end of side one. I’ve rarely been so grateful for the relatively short length of pre-CD albums.

(In the old days I’d be turning the vinyl over about now)

8. The Prophet’s Song

I remember this from 1975. I remember not liking it much the first time I listened to it. I expect that’s because it’s not as instantly appealing as some of the other songs on the album. But I persevered and it became my favourite. It has a complexity that repays repeated listens. Maybe it’s responsible for the many years I spent listening to progressive rock. And perhaps it’s just in comparison to the dreck on side one, but I’m actually quite enjoying it now. Even the choral “la-la” bit in the middle.

9. Love of My Life

Another one I was dreading. If not for “Bohemian Rhapsody”, this would probably be the best-known song on the album. It has always been hugely popular with Queen fans. Listen to it on any of their live albums (it’s probably on all of them) and you’ll hear that Freddie sings almost none of it – he just lets the audience sing. For me it has always been an over-sentimental song that I just can’t stand. Today, compared to the rest of the album it’s sounds pretty good. Side two is off to a much better start.

10. Good Company

Oh crap, we’re back on the pier again. Why are they doing this to me? Please make it stop.

11. Bohemian Rhapsody

It’s impossible to listen to this objectively. Back in 1975 I loved it. I bought the single (it was released before the album) and was very excited that it stayed at number one for nine weeks. But it became overplayed and I got bored of it. When Freddie Mercury died in 1991 people were playing it incessantly and I did all I could to avoid it. I’ve been relatively successful and I have hardly heard it in the last twenty years. Listening to it now I can see why I liked it so much (why everyone liked it so much). Even the opera section made me smile rather than cringe.

12. God Save the Queen

Even in 1975 I would normally take the needle off the record before it got to this track. I really couldn’t understand why a rock band was playing the national anthem. Well, I could see why but it all seemed a bit obvious and pointless. Now I just picture Brian May on top of Buckingham Palace which depresses me.

In Summary

I was interested to go back and listen to something that I used to love so much. I;m glad I did, but it really hasn’t aged well. I might give “The Prophet’s Song” and “39” a few more listens, but I certainly won’t be putting the album on my iPod.

I was surprised to find that as the songs started playing, I still remembered most of the lyrics. That shows what a huge impression it made on me, I suppose.

I remember Queen being more interesting than this. So I’ll probably listen to a couple more of their albums. I used to like Sheer Heart Attack and A Day at the Races, so I think I’ll given them another listen at some point soon.

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